By Nathan Liewicki
OTTERBURNE — Equipped with a never-say-die attitude, the Red River Rebels women’s volleyball team capped a dream weekend in the Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference Final Four winning their first championship in dramatic fashion.
Red River, which was seeded third after posting a 7-9 record in regular-season play, knocked off the top-seeded Canadian Mennonite University Blazers 3-2 (25-12, 19-25, 25-23, 25-27, 15-11) in the MCAC final at Providence University College in Otterburne on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s awesome, it’s unbelievable and I still can’t believe it happened,” second-year RRC outside hitter Sara Meisner said.
The five-foot-nine Moosehorn product finished with 12 kills, a team-best 21 digs and three of the Rebels’ 11 aces.
RRC reached the final in dramatic fashion, erasing a two-set deficit against the second-seeded Université de Saint-Boniface Les Rouges to capture the first of two semifinals, 3-2 (15-25, 12-25, 25-19, 25-16, 15-11), on Saturday.
“I think it was just an avalanche,” fifth-year Rebels head coach Dan McGregor said. “Once it started going and we started winning some points and got a little more confidence it carried all the way through. We felt like we could do no wrong at that point.”
The Rebels triumphed in just one of their eight combined regular-season meetings with USB and CMU, but the Rebels dug deep during the Final Four, especially against the Blazers, who posted a 12-4 regular-season mark before they downed the No. 4 Assiniboine Community College Cougars 3-0 (25-17, 25-18, 25-17) in Saturday’s other semi.
“We’ve played them four times this year and we won one set. I don’t know if there was a lot of confidence there,” McGregor said. “As much as we had some close sets, we tried to build ourselves up going in the right direction.”
After falling behind 6-3 in the opening set, RRC went on a 4-0 run with Meisner at the service-line. The Blazers squared it up on the next point, but the Rebels won 11 straight points on the strength of outstanding serving by setter Chloe Orteza and terrific block defense to grab an 18-7 advantage.
The second-year nursing student from Ile des Chenes, who only took over setting duties around Christmas, finished with 37 assists, four digs and two aces.
MCAC co-MVP Ashley Goodwin cemented the opening set for the Rebels with one of her match-high 20 kills off an angled CMU block. The six-foot-two outside hitter from Winnipeg also led her team with four aces and dug up 10 balls.
“I think there were a few nerves coming in because they were the number one team and we hadn’t beaten them yet, but once we got up on them we could see that we could do it,” Goodwin said. “I think that gave us confidence for the rest of the match.”
Goodwin continued to assert her dominance early in the second set as she helped RRC snag a 7-6 lead.
The set remained close until the Blazers used a 6-0 run to take a 22-15 lead.
RRC saved two set points before being called for a net violation in an attempt to stave off a third.
Out to a fast 10-2 start in the third set, it looked like the Blazers had found their groove and were ready to put the match on cruise control. However, the Rebels battled their way back with stout defence, and Chloe Friesen’s error on a riveting, minute-long rally brought RRC to within two points, 19-17.
The Rebels claimed a 2-1 lead when Meisner’s desperation hit into the CMU backcourt resulted in two Blazers running into each other and the ball hitting the floor.
“I think we thought even though we are down a bit, there’s lots of game left and we can come back,” Meisner said. “We just didn’t get down on ourselves like we did in the past, which is why we lost so many games. We just kept the positivity and we just started getting points, started earning them.”
CMU garnered a 5-3 lead early in the fourth set, but the Rebels continued their stellar defense, and it paid dividends with a 7-1 run to take a 10-6 lead.
The Blazers weren’t going to let the Rebels extinguish their flame that quickly as they went on a run of their own, forging a 22-17 advantage.
Like they did in the second, RRC saved two set points before Allison Kryschuk dumped a serve into the net. The Rebels saved a third CMU set point before co-MVP Jana Klassen served up her lone ace of the match to push the championship match the distance.
Klassen, a five-foot-nine left side from Calgary, led the Blazers with 17 kills and dug up 14 balls.
But try as she could to will CMU to its fifth MCAC championship in program history, and second in three years, Klassen could only look on as the Rebels used an 8-0 run to grab a 9-2 lead in the fifth.
The Blazers responded with a 6-1 of their own to cut the deficit to 10-8, but they couldn’t climb all the way back. A joint block by RRC defenders appeared to land outside the court but was called in by the closest official and the Rebels began celebrating on their side of the net.
“There was a body in front of him and it may have messed up his judgement and I don’t think he saw,” CMU middle Mackenzy Groot said. “I thought it was unfair and bad judgment on his part.”
First-year Blazers head coach Roy Rodriguez admitted it was a tough pill to swallow but rued some costly mental errors committed by his team.
“When everything is all scrambled, you want to almost finish the point at some point and just want a mental break,” he said. “The other team scrapped really well, dug up a lot of balls and gave themselves a chance to bring the ball back. We did the same thing, just at some points, it wasn’t enough.”
Just a handful of seasons removed from a winless season, McGregor and his players are going to savour the program’s first MCAC banner.
“I’m quite proud of our team. A few years ago, when I started coaching here, we were 0-20,” McGregor said. “We worked hard and coming out this year I feel like they earned everything they achieved.”